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Cognitive Systems of Human and Non-human Animals: At the Crossroads of Phenomenology, Ethology and Biosemiotics


The article aims to provide a general framework for assessing and categorizing the cognitive systems of human and non-human animals. Our approach stems from biosemiotic, ethological, and phenomenological investigations into the relations of organisms to one another and to their environment. Building on the analyses of Merleau-Ponty and Portmann, organismal bodies and surfaces are distinguished as the base for sign production and interpretation. Following the concept of modelling systems by Sebeok, we develop a concentric model of human and non-human animal cognition that posits three intertwined spheres: corporeity, social communication, and culture. The model explicitly works with the pluralistic perspective that views the communication and cognition of humans as distinct, but not superior to those of non-human animals. Our position is substantiated by two case studies: the first one focuses on the acquisition and spread of nut-cracking technique among the chimpanzees in the Täi forest, the second one on the communication and cognition of deafblind persons. From an epistemological perspective, our paper is a contribution to contemporary attempts to link biosemiotics and ethology with phenomenological concepts of agency, living bodies, and lifeworld.


The main goal of the following study is to introduce a new model of animal and human communication and cognitive systems. Foundational here is Sebeok’s approach, classic to the zoosemiotic tradition, which distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary modelling systems (Sebeok 1991; Sebeok and Danesi 2000). While Sebeok’s model has certain limitations, which will be considered below, it remains a good framework for rendering (i) the specificity of communication and cognitive systems of individual species (including humans) and (ii) an acknowledgment of the specific form of the human way of inhabiting the world, bound to human language and culture. We do not see this human specificity as a kind of superiority or an unprecedented evolutionary achievement, but rather as an extraordinary intensification of possibilities that in certain forms appear elsewhere in the organic world.

The theoretical problem of where to position humans in relation to (other) animals has been worked on intensively in the zoosemiotic tradition. Here we find the traditional view of Sebeok, developed primarily by the Tartu school, that sees animal communication as species-specific but at the same time preserves the uniqueness of language among other modelling systems. On the other side is the “liberal” approach inspired by, among others, cognitive ethology, posthumanism, and environmental humanities, that does not see language as a specifically human mode of communication and does not hesitate to speak of the languages (or cultures) of non-human organisms (Martinelli 2010; Lestel 2011a). The second approach seems better integrated with current socio-ethical trends that reject the superiority of humans over other species and inequality among any subgroupings of the human species (Singer 1989).

Our approach can be assessed as a liberal updating of Sebeok’s original approach. The liberalization consists in abandoning the logocentric notes of Sebeok’s model in keeping with the more modern orientation of the so-called post-linguistic era of zoosemiotics (Maran 2014: 5). The decision not to assess the communication systems of other organisms through the prism of human language must not, however, lead us to a position we might call “logo-denial”: the refutation of any specificity of human language and the foundational role it plays in the formation of human culture. Our approach, then, will not be a compromise in the direction of posthumanism, but will be founded on a clarification and application of a theoretical postulate on the relation of humans and animals known as pluralism in contemporary zoosemiotics (see below). We maintain that zoosemiotic thought on the relation of humans to animals thereby emancipates itself from the levelling of species specifics typical in certain currents of Darwinism, without, though, falling into anachronistic approaches arising from a conviction about the species superiority of humans. It is important to point out here that following this current will require a rethinking of the relationship of biosemiotics with various philosophical traditions, particularly phenomenology and enactivism. Let us acknowledge in advance that points (i) and (ii) are in complete harmony with the classical program of philosophical anthropology, which sought a middle way between the naturalistic ethos of Darwinism and the idealistic background of German phenomenology (Husserl).

Maran et al. (2011) and Martinelli (2010) have identified three lines of thought on the human-animal relation: gradualism (classically Darwin), discontinuity (e.g. Chomsky, Deacon), and pluralism (classically J. von Uexküll). On closer reflection, however, we find that behind the term pluralism hide two quite distinct standpoints. On one hand is the Tartu school, who prefer an interpretation of umwelt that emphasizes the specificity of each species (including humans) without relying on a Darwinian theoretical framework that seeks smooth evolutionary transitions between individual species (see Kull 2010, 2014; Maran 2010; Maran et al. 2016). On the other hand is the zoosemiotic approach most expressly advocated for by Martinelli (2010), which under the Darwinian motto of continuity minimizes qualitative differences in the semiotic or cognitive capacities of individual species, especially in the case of humans versus (other) animals. Martinelli’s approach is not opposed to umwelt theory, but under the influence of Darwinism it casually assumes that evolutionarily related species have very similar umwelten. This leads him close to the position in cognitive ethology held especially by F. de Waal, who acknowledges umwelt theory but promptly incorporates it into a Darwinian view of the continuity of communication and cognitive systems (he speaks, for example, of the common umwelt of humans and apes; see de Waal 2016: 11).Footnote 1 Such a position has been characterized as unitarism by Jaroš and Maran (2019), who contrast it with pluralism (proceeding from Uexküll), of which Sebeok is largely representative.Footnote 2 For greater clarity, we include this classification (Table 1), while noting that discontinuity is here referred to as transformativism (the human world as a superior transformation of the modelling systems of other species).

Table 1 Four narrative forms of anthropological difference

In our model of communication and cognitive systems, we maintain a thoroughly pluralistic perspective. As demonstrated by Jaroš and Maran (2019), Sebeok consistently treats the cognition of individual species (including humans) in a pluralistic manner, yet his views on culture evince certain traces of transformativism (only humans have true culture; see Sebeok 2001: 149), and his perspective on communication systems is fully transformativist (the exclusivity of human language forms an entire secondary modelling system and conditions a tertiary modelling system – essentially a synonym for culture). While in the work of Sebeok and Danesi (2000: 82, 96, 141, 147) we do find passages that allow non-human species moments of secondary and tertiary modelling, the very construction of the three-fold modelling system is clearly hierarchical and reflective of a logocentric understanding of (human) culture. In our reinterpretation of Sebeok, we retain a tertiary classification of modelling (or cognitive) systems, but we understand it as flatly concentric rather than hierarchical. If Sebeok’s original model roughly corresponds to a hierarchy of (i) umwelt, (ii) language, (iii) culture, our understanding shifts the emphasis to (I) corporeality, (II) social communication, (III) culture. The first sphere is a condition of life for any organism and serves as a base for its species-specific cognition; spheres (II) and (III) are acknowledged for all those traditionally categorized as “higher” animals (we need not concern ourselves with the lower limit of this category, as our analysis primarily treats the question of the animal-human relation).

More detail on the grounds of our reinterpretation of Sebeok and descriptions of each sphere is found in the section “The Concentric Model of Human and Non-human Animal Cognitive Systems.” First, though, we relate our chosen approach to the phenomenological philosophy of M. Merleau-Ponty, which grounds the experience and relation to the world of human and other individuals in their corporeality. We conclude the article with two case studies. The first focuses on “The Acquisition and Spread of Nut-cracking Technique among the Chimpanzees in the Täi Forest” and illustrates the predominant influence of corporeality (I) on the formation of cultural practices (III) in the case of non-human animals. The second case study focuses on the “Communication and Cognition of Deafblind Persons” and illustrates, among other things, how in the case of humans the acquisition of cultural proficiency (III) is essentially dependent on the adoption of a coded type of communication (i.e. language) within the respective society. In the end, it is shown that while human communication may be unthinkable without a corporal foundation, its possibility of a purely symbolic form, unlike that of other species, allows the channel of social communication (II) to be determined by cultural means (III).

Merleau-Ponty on the Nature of Expression, Sign and Language

In an editorial in this journal, Tønnessen et al. (2018) examine the relationship between phenomenology and biosemiotics and conclude that phenomenological investigation, which is traditionally focused on the experience of the human individual, can be enriched by biosemiotically oriented research on the experience of animals – only against this background will the specificity of human experience emerge. It should be noted, however, that so far this includes primarily biosemioticians who have been inspired by phenomenological approaches, especially M. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of corporeal perception (Hoffmeyer 2008; Magnus and Kull 2011; Westling 2014; Tønnessen 2015). Apart from the concepts of M. Merleau-Ponty, also significant to our investigation of the lived world of deafblind persons will be the observation of D. Abram that each person lives in a “more-than-human world” (Abram 2010, 2017; see also Tønnessen et al. 2018). We especially appreciate Abram’s valuable emphasis on the fact that human language, however sophisticated it is, cannot be understood primarily as the human ability to describe the world and to fix meanings. Human language can be understood as a specifically human form of expressivity, which, however, basically draws from the expressive ability of all living things.Footnote 3

Our paper is, among other things, focused on the lifeworld of those human individuals whose experience is essentially different from the standard way of experiencing the world – the lifeworld of a congenitally deafblind person. A deafblind person can be understood as a model of imaginary “core humanity”, an illustration of those aspects of human specificities which are essential for our understanding of a human being as a being notably different from other living creatures. Abram’s claim that we live in a more-than-human world then expresses just one part of a huge complexity of possible differentiations showing only one category of interspecific difference in experiencing the world, as there are more levels of human experience than suggested by the category of “normal” human experience. Such a modified view will allow us to see the deafblind person not only as a handicapped individual facing certain obstacles, or as an individual requiring a specific approach and experiencing the world in a specific way, but also as a person who requires the same preconditions in communication as any other human individual.

In the phenomenological tradition, this relationship can be clarified by Merleau-Ponty´s analysis of the subject and the role intersubjectivity plays in its establishment. Although Merleau-Ponty seems to derive the subject from its self-understanding (i.e. its relation to its own movements in space, attaching meaning to these movements), his emphasis on the subject’s essential corporeity and its relations to other corporeal structures transcend this dimension of the subject. This is because once any movement takes a place in the intercorporeal field, it becomes an expressive movement, which lies at the very basis of our linguistic possibilities. This fact shows that communication can take place on multiple levels. Merleau-Ponty himself states that “[b]ehaviour creates meanings which are transcendent in relation to the anatomical apparatus, and yet immanent to the behaviour as such, since it communicates itself and is understood”, and that speech is “merely one particular case” of such behaviour (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 220). With this remark Merleau-Ponty denies any fundamental human superiority among other animal species. Nevertheless, human language seems to be a key element of anthropological difference and for this reason comparing this human specificity with non-human animals seems to be useful and justified (compare with Halák and Klouda 2018: 371). But not only interspecific differences are worthy of attention. The human individuals also undergo transformations during their own ontogenesis, as reflected in the biosemiotic literature (Tønnessen 2014) and also in Merleau-Ponty´s own work (Merleau-Ponty 2002).

Merleau-Ponty (2003) elaborates on Uexküll’s conception of umwelt as the relationship of the organism to its environment, based on its structure and activity and, as such, understandable only if we find out what the organism is “open to” or “what could be integrated in the range of its possible actions and what can thereby show itself as a meaningful phenomenon to it” (Halák and Klouda 2018: 383). This is made possible through so-called “norms”. The norm expresses the meaningfulness with which the new experience is given and which bridges the transcendental relationship between the “inside” and the “outside” of the organism. In Merleau-Ponty´s view, the stimulus for the organism does not have the form of some causal effect, but always of some meaningful sign. Our assessment of the actual situation and the new impulses is conditioned by previous experience that (re-)structures our perception for the future. The organism has a “normative character” and “the relationship between the experiential norm and the deviation from it [...] is a fundamental principle of all perception” (Cf. ibid.: 385). Through these norms an organism´s relation to the world is instituted – meaning that the world is experienced as meaningful. On the basis of its norms, an organism creates “a reference system” which enables it to interpret any oncoming situation as meaningful and which is also modified by ongoing situations by recognizing significant structural elements which it includes (ibid: 389).

Thus, the organism creates certain structures in which the world makes sense to it (i.e. its umwelt) and re-evaluates and improves these structures under the influence of deviations from norms already established. Merleau-Ponty claims that “what we understand by the concept of institution are those events in experience which endow it with durable dimensions, in which a whole series of other experiences will acquire meaning” and that meaning “sediments” in subjects (Merleau-Ponty 1970: 40, cf. Halák and Klouda 2018: 388–389).

These characteristics hitherto mentioned are those semiotic characteristics that we share with non-human animals, which are – if it comes to signs– all more or less based on this principle of sedimentation.Footnote 4 Our language is then an extreme case of this sedimentation because it creates a fund of expressions that are given to us for common use in intersubjective interactions (i.e. sharing sense and meaning). Just by creating a reserve of fixed meanings, which allows us to describe an unlimited number of situations and which can be used in an almost unlimited number of contexts, language acts as a very powerful element of our thinking. In this context, Merleau-Ponty does not hesitate to allege that the human umwelt is “open, transformable” and that it is open to the world because our body is “armed with instruments of observation and action” which allow us to make “projection of a system of equivalences and nonnatural discrimination” (Merleau-Ponty 2003: 221–222). In short, language allows sedimentation at a completely different level—one that allows a human being to make a step out of its umwelt to the idea of Welt.Footnote 5

Merleau-Ponty’s description shows (1) the primariness of the communicative role in the language development process, i.e. primariness of activity, which human language shares with other animal species’ communicative systems, (2) the irreplaceable role of social context in language development, which is also common in (at least) higher animals, but also (3) the recursiveness of human language, which allows humans to apply limited lingual resources in a (theoretically) unlimited number of situations, even in the formulation of very general or abstract statements. This last point assumes a specific feature of human language and communication. Recursiveness is a characteristic not solely of the use of signs already sedimented but also of a mode of expression of these signs. A human individual uses many different kinds of communicational resources; lingual communication, for example, can be founded not only on the auditive channel, but also on visual (sign languages for the deaf) or tactile media (tactile sign language for the deafblind). In this variability of the use of diverse communicational media, multimodality of human communication is manifested. Variability of the external expressional form of human communication uncovers another feature of specifically human language: that this (4) exteriority of expression during an individual’s development recedes into the background and that individually specific acts of speech scaffold the structure of already established meanings. This last point is closely related with point (2) because it is communicative interaction which supports the formation of such structure.

Accordingly, Tønnessen (2014: 302) notes that language acquisition is connected with a certain loss of those non-verbal aspects of human experience and so “the mature human being’s umwelt consists for the most part only of those objects that can be named”. Once human language is acquired to this extent, it becomes a superior realm of meanings that often pushes out other, e.g. pictorial, representations of the world (cf. Portmann 1990: 113).

To explain the social foundation of language in more detail, let us now turn back to Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation. Despite this exceptional character of human language in comparison with other animal systems of communication, it still stems from a general animal basis of expressive movements, in Merleau-Ponty’s term. In short, an expressive movement can be defined as a movement that is oriented to some goal as such, is meaningful for a subject, and causes this subject to understand herself as an entity differentiated from the surrounding (see Marratto 2012: 167–168).

According to Merleau-Ponty, gestures, as fundamental expressive movements, form the core of language. In social interaction, gestures (i.e. movements executed by a subject) acquire the institutionalized form of a primitive sign (i.e. this movement in interaction with other individuals). Language is a system in which the movement of an individual becomes a gesture that makes sense – the bodily gesture is replaced by lingual expression. Language changes us, it gives us a fully subjective dimension by which we relate to the world because it penetrates our perception, changes it, but also stays flexible. In this sense, language becomes the way by which we live.Footnote 6 Tønnessen (2014: 288) in this sense distinguishes three aspects of umwelt: the core umwelt, based on automated acts of perception and automated mental acts; mediated umwelt, based on wilful acts of perception and wilful mental acts; and conceptual umwelt, characteristic for higher animals, as an aspect of umwelt distinctive by its habitual acts of perception and habitual mental acts defined as “the learned matching of something with something else”. In the case of humans, this last aspect of umwelt is specifically connected with language use. On this scale we can recognize and describe the development postulated by Merleau-Ponty (2003: 176) showing that higher animals are influenced by events in the outer world not in the sense of causal effects but rather in the sense of signs, which have specific meanings within a certain structure, and so “[t]he Umwelt is less and less oriented to a goal and more and more toward the interpretation of symbols”. This, Merleau-Ponty believes, is the basic event of a nascent culture.

The specificity of human language is that its external structure is basically fully learned by every human individual repeatedly across generations and that, apart from the hidden basis of its grammatical structure (which typically may not be reflected by the individual speaking a particular language), human languages are geographically highly variable, lacking any purely biological foundation (Chomsky 2006, 2009). Despite this lack of a “material anchor” language plays an important and emblematic role in our intuitive understanding of the term personality. A human being lacking the ability to use language seems to us incomplete because she cannot be fully integrated into the activities of society.

The Concentric Model of Human and Non-human Animal Cognitive Systems

The following model provides an innovative restructuring of animal and human semiotic processes and is inspired by phenomenological, ethological, and biosemiotic approaches to cognition, communication, and culture. As an important source here, we must mention in particular Sebeok’s concept of language and culture. In contrast to the profoundly linguistic approach of Lotman, Sebeok and Danesi (2000) reclassify language (that is, speech) as a secondary and culture as a tertiary modelling system and give them a position above a primary modelling system incidental with Uexküll’s use of umwelt (cf. Kull 2010). In this move, they postulate a basal zoosemiotic dimension common to all animals and humans as possessors of individual umwelten. At the same time, setting aside two modelling systems as almost exclusively human seems to be a heritage of Sebeok’s own linguistic education. Our model will differ from Sebeok’s approach in few essential places, and it is a dialogue with this system that justifies the new concept.

For Sebeok (1991: 58), culture is a unique (i.e. anthroposemiotic) superstructure above the space of linguistic sign systems. According to him, other human sign systems can be directly compared (homologized) to cases in the animal kingdom and cannot be classified as culture in the true sense. Besides these, there are cultural activities that may include a strong non-verbal component (e.g. the culinary arts or gardening); it is, however, nonsensical to compare these with activities in the animal kingdom (Sebeok 1990: 65–66). In the following points we will identify the main problems of Sebeok’s approach:

  1. 1

    We recognize the limits of Sebeok’s belief that there is not any specifically human (i.e. anthroposemiotic) sign system that has no linguistic structure (Sebeok 1990: 54–55). Here we can present results from the area of “gesture studies”, which introduces a continuous range between “beats” (gesticulation), pantomime, emblems, and sign languages (“Kendon’s Continuum”, see McNeill 2000: 1). The first three categories are linked specifically to human corporeality and communication; however, they do not have syntax and thus cannot be regarded as linguistic in Sebeok’s terms. Also, in the case of “private” hearing-impaired home signers, their communication cannot be considered as a language in the true sense of the word (important abstractions and temporality are missing; most of the characters are of an iconic nature; cf. Frishberg 1987: 128–131).

  2. 2

    Especially problematic is Sebeok’s belief that in evolution, language primarily had a modelling function and only later served as a means of communication (Sebeok 1991: 70; cf. Martinelli 2010: 137). Although language differs from animal communication systems precisely in the vast potential for meaning creation, it is hardly conceivable that any variety of meanings can be established independently of inter-individual interactions. In fact, a tight interdependence of the modelling and communication functions of language applies to both the evolutionary and ontogenetic levels. In short, language is at the same time the property of a certain community of people, but at the same time it must be adopted by each speaker for himself, which is not possible without interaction with others. Language is thus a good example of a communication system with genetic predispositions, but whose mastery is a matter of cultural transmission within the community (cf. the idea of social uterus in Portmann 1962).

  3. 3

    Sebeok’s concept faces one serious methodological problem: once we find a correlate in the animal kingdom for some area of human activity, we shift it from the category of anthroposemiotic to zoosemiotic. For example, after appreciation of the aesthetical complexities of bird songs, Sebeok (1990: 53–54) changed the categorization of music to anthroposemiotic without discussing the existence of the possible threshold of a distinctively human form of musical expression (e.g. bird song vs. a human choir).

  4. 4

    Thus, the adjective zoosemiotic is used by Sebeok as either a pre-linguistic component of human communication or any component of animal communication. Although this can be a useful conceptual link at the level of simple human gestures and animal expressions, for example, the core of the approach contains a dual perspective: animal-like/human-linguistic, in which the latter grows from the former as an advanced structure. This can be illustrated by Sebeok directly comparing any non-linguistic human communication with animal sign systems without taking into account the plasticity of human communication modes associated with a specific type of corporeality (point 1). A second indication is the development of a general and in some way collective zoosemiotic category for all types of animal communication. This has inadvertently created the impression that the communication system of chimpanzees is closer to that of e.g. cats than to human sign language systems, which led Sebeok to a sharp condemnation of attempts to teach chimpanzees the basics of sign language (Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1980). As Jaroš and Maran (2019) note, in the case of communication, Sebeok abandons a pluralistic narrative taking into account the unique umwelt of every species and considers the human linguistic approach to be a qualitatively higher type of modelling system (transformativism).

Here, in contrast, we consistently apply a pluralistic narrative for the evaluation of the human-animal relationship (Jaroš and Maran 2019: Table 1). What do we actually mean by the term “animal,” and is this designation justified in a pluralistic narrative? Does it make sense to include invertebrates, lizards, and apes into one collective category and place exclusively humans into another? Especially cautionary is the continuing habit of many philosophers who use the category “animal” as a deficient opposite to the adjective “human” (Rattasepp 2018). It would certainly be possible to proceed strictly phylogenetically and compare the cognitive systems of individual species, as in the new field of comparative cognition. Here, though, is the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, for an epistemological moratorium has been imposed here on the specifics of the cognitive world of humans (cf. de Waal 2016: 158). We will circumvent the problem of defining the term “animal” by associating it, admittedly vaguely, with what has traditionally been called the “higher animals,” which implicitly suggests a certain proximity to humans. We need not specify the lower limit of this designation, as we are concerned with the comparison with human cognition, and our first case study focuses on chimpanzees.

Here we can once again ask about the innovation offered by our model as opposed to the approach of Sebeok and the tradition of philosophical anthropology. The metaphorical answer is straightforward: the remnants of hierarchical thinking are here spread out into concentrically nested structures successively representing the spheres of (I) corporeality, (II) social communication, (III) and culture (Fig. 1). If we still use the division of “human” and “non-human animal,” we do not mean to suggest homogeneity in the latter category. This is rather an auxiliary category which will continue to apply in the daily experience of non-biologists (or non-biosemioticians) as the digital advances of contemporary civilization cut a wide section of the population off not only from the possibility of distinguishing differences among species, but from a sensitivity toward animals as such. The division into zoosemiotic and anthroposemiotic is not dismissed even among biosemioticians critical of speciesism: Martinelli (2010: 180), just as Sebeok, uses the term “anthroposemiotic” to designate human (species-specific) semiosis.

Fig. 1

The concentric model of human and non-human animal cognitive systems

It is therefore necessary to admit that justification for the relevance of the adjective zoosemiotic stems from some understood duality between zoosemiotic and anthroposemiotic in which the former will always carry a certain vagueness, similarly as with the term “non-human animal.” Pluralism, of course, requires us to cultivate not only a species-conditioned configuration toward the world of human semiosis, but also a sensitivity to the specificity of the semiotic worlds of other species: certainly there exist phenomena linked exclusively with the chimpanzee cognitive experience of the world (one candidate could be their so-called rain dance), which we could therefore designate as “chimp-semiotic” (hence the possibility of a specifically chimpanzee culture, which Sebeok and the philosophical anthropologists have underestimated). The possibilities of “chimp-semiotic” studies are, of course, delimited by the fact that chimpanzees inhabit a different umwelt than humans, who will continue to invest more attention in the more familiar and understood world of anthroposemiotic phenomena. To completely deny the unprecedented plasticity of human modes of communication and the dynamically expanding sphere of human culture, however, would also take a certain ideological adjustment.

In our model, therefore, we understand the adjective zoosemiotic as a sort of idealization of interspecific communication – a level of animal and human communication that is easily understood by other species with the possibility of basic cohabitation. The zoosemiotic level forms the foundation of each sphere (I, II, III), and its superstructure will be introduced in the first case study in the form of the chimpanzee skill of nut-cracking (certainly chimp-semiotic, as its significance is not intelligible to leopards, for example). The anthroposemiotic superstructure will be introduced as a special case in the framework of each sphere (I, II, III). We are not concerned with demonstrating that a certain cognitive ability has no analogy in other species: in keeping with the logic of our model, it is enough to demonstrate the formation and interpretation of signs that are not easily comprehensible to non-human animals. The importance of language as the basic form of social communication in humans will be examined in the example of deafblind persons in the second case study.

Sphere I: Corporeality

Within the biosemiotic tradition, subjectivity is attributed to every creature that has an umwelt (Tønnessen 2014; Tønnessen et al. 2016). An umwelt can be understood as a model of the environment that is primarily constituted by the corporeality of the creature and substantially predetermined by belonging to a particular biological species. An umwelt is the lifeworld of an animal and is firmly tied to the capabilities of its perceptual and effector organs. In addition to being an interpreter of events in its surroundings, an animal is itself an object that is interpreted by the senses of other creatures. Following the teaching of Portmann, we can say that the animal turns to the world through its surface, especially through the semantic organs, which are the primary bearers of meaning. This meaning is constituted depending on the form of the umwelt of its interpreter: the same object can be perceived as an enemy or a sexual partner (e.g. the odour of a male leopard’s skin for a macaque or a female leopard). The important thing is that such meaning is not created de novo, but depends on the relation of individual bodies, which anchor the very possibilities of the form of meanings.

In this context, Merleau-Ponty (2003: 224) speaks of intercorporeity, the interconnection of subjects—not through their mental models, however, but through the space of shared physical experience. A subject, the recipient and the emitter of meaning at the same time, is embodied and embedded in a network of relationships that intertwine in the interactions between individual bodily actors. In his late work, Merleau-Ponty expressed the fact that this space is not only human-bound by moving towards the term of interanimality. Interanimality replaces the notion of separated living beings with an ontology that highlights their interconnectedness (Merleau-Ponty 2003: 189). It explicitly draws on Uexküll’s concept of umwelt and the need to assess animal behaviour in relation to the physical form of its protagonists. The interconnectedness of umwelten is not limited to the representatives of the same species, but may also concern a predator and its prey (Merleau-Ponty 2003: 173). A good illustration of the problem of interanimality can be found in the work of Portmann, for whom, as for proponents of classical ethology, the social character of living beings was a matter of course:

So — through hundreds and thousands of structures and movements, scents and sounds, creature speaks to creature, to members of the species, to enemies, sometimes even to ‘friends’ from other species. All that speaks and is seen, heard, smelt or otherwise ‘comprehended’, can create significant relationships between one life centre and another — whether the ‘comprehension’ is innate and unconscious or acquired and decided by experience. (Portmann 1961: 95–96)

A macaque understands a sneaking leopard as an attack without having to learn to assign that meaning. A human will respond to a creeping predator in an analogous way. In ritual fights, a communicative component is obvious, and its form is given genetically, as can be seen in the playful fights of kittens, which are a whimsical copy of the territorial encounters of adult individuals. In similar instances, the behaviour itself has to be comprehended as a communicative sign.

The Corporeality of Humans

Demonstrating the anthroposemiotic superstructure in relation to the sphere of corporeality generally understood in an interspecies framework is no easy task. In the first place, we must recall that Merleau-Ponty’s concept of intercorporeality was specifically constructed to accommodate the interconnectedness of the corporeal worlds not only of individual humans, but those of humans and animals as well. On the other hand is the same author’s well-known dictum that “before being reason, humanity is another corporeity” (Merleau-Ponty 2003: 208). This is not to say that man is simply an animal body + reason, but that the peculiarity of human cognition and symbolic thinking is somehow predesignated in the conditions of specific human corporeality. Here we reach the intellectual territory of philosophical anthropology, which, in addition to the classic themes of humans’ erect posture and manual dexterity, has drawn attention to the relation of human speech with the anatomical construction of the larynx (Portmann 1990).

Whereas bodily self-care (e.g. cleaning fur, grooming for parasites) is typical for all higher animals, in humans we find phenomena employing a greater degree of cultural conditioning in the relation of the self to one’s own corporeality (the aesthetic function of clothing, the shame of nakedness). In comparison with animals, the corporeality of humans can be significantly altered according to specific cultural and scientific procedures (e.g. tattoos, silicone implants). The loss of body hair particularly in facial regions is probably evolutionarily related to the complex palette of emotions expressed in human intraspecific communication (e.g. in laughter, shame, and crying). There is no convincing evidence that members of other species would be capable of discerning the significance of these particular emotional states. In connection with the second case study, it is worth mentioning here that the rich innervation of the human hand makes possible the perception of minute positional and pressure differences.

Sphere II: Social Communication

In our model, we will understand a society as a grouping of individuals that is able to coordinate some important activities (such as transfers from one location to another, rhythm of sleep) and share meanings with each other (such as joint hunting, predator alarms). Relationships with other individuals of the same species are an essential component of the life of all vertebrates, and interpretation of their quality (Uexküll’s functional cycles relating to food, enemies, physical environment, and sexual partners) is one of the basic functions of the vertebrate brain. Society is characterized by a certain stability, which, particularly in mammals, is accompanied by the existence of a certain hierarchy. Every social creature must have the ability to communicate: while at the stage of corporeality we have been talking about situations in which the interactions of animals are conditioned mainly by physical and instinctive factors, we find a greater degree of freedom at the stage of social communication. We can say that meanings depend on the course of the communication exchange of members of a given species, the context being given by the structure of a given society. According to a canonical understanding of umwelt (Tønnessen et al. 2016: definitions 3–5), the form of these meanings is predetermined by belonging to the particular species and is bound to its physiological properties and limitations. Sebeok sees communication as a sign system that is directly related to the physiology of the species. Portmann (1961, cf. Kleisner 2008) in his semantic morphology supports the view that the form of society of a particular species is given by its corporeality and prefigured by the form of semantic and sensory organs, together with the organization of inwardness (with a great deal of simplification of the concept, inwardness denotes the relationship to the world pre-established by the structure and function of the brain and CNS).Footnote 7

For our purposes, it is essential to investigate the relationship between societal participation and communication. We will show that through communication with other members of its species, an animal individual becomes a social subject. The same applies for language as the human-specific means of communication and its crucial role in the establishment and maintenance of social relations (as we will see, particular languages belong to the Sphere III). While in the tradition of biosemiotics and ethology the social level of animal life is generally accepted (Sebeok 1990; Lestel 2011a; Allen and Bekoff 1999), some research models of comparative psychology and cognitive sciences assume the basic ontological premise of the isolation of minds of individual actors. For example, Tomasello (2008, 2014) sees the ability to share the content of mind with other individuals as a fundamental evolutionary novelty of Homo sapiens, derived from the strategies which were necessary for the success of collective hunting.

However, we oppose the individualistic concepts of mind and cognition, viewing the interactions between living creatures as the actualization of the possibility of understanding the other as presented in the concept of interanimality by Merleau-Ponty. The communication act takes place through a species-specific communication channel, and with its actualization the meaning is shared by two or more subjects: this means that the space of intersubjectivity opens up already in the non-human world. The shape of intraspecific communication is closely linked to the organization of a society of the given species and is often derived from relationships between individual members (e.g. social information transfer typically takes place from older to younger). Crucial to our idea of communication is the understanding of it as an ontogenetic process. Although its physiological nature and mode of transmission are tied to the species-specific umwelt and have a strong genetic component, it cannot be said that communication could develop in isolation from the social environment. Especially in the early phase of ontogenesis, infants acquire basic skills through imitation and learning. The quality of parental care is then crucial for the successful cognitive and social development of the young, which is closely tied to its communication skills (for the case of chimpanzees see Bard et al. 2014).

Non-human animals communicate with each other not only in relation to their social relationship, but also in relation to the space in which they occur. As an example, we can mention areas for so-called cat gatherings, at which a minimal number of aggressive interactions occur, although there is no gesture or other sign that would explicitly define the quality of such spaces. The manner of behaviour at the gathering place derives from individual minor communication exchanges and gradually sediments into an intersubjectively accepted habit (Jaroš 2017). The embedment of communication channels in species-specific corporeality constrains the general form of gestures; however, there is a potential for novelties, whose meaning and social significance are then linked to a culturally conditioned tradition (e.g. the handclasp grooming of chimpanzees, see de Waal and Bonnie 2009).

Social Communication in Humans

For all higher creatures, the acquisition of the meaning of individual communicative signs takes place within a species-specific ontogenesis. The strictly human way of communication based in language is specific in that it requires a long time of learning, which the child undergoes in the safety of a family and a wider community (see social uterus in Portmann 1962). The acquisition of individual meanings through language is thus tied to communicative acts with members of society who have already formed a complex linguistic community in advance. Human language is further characterized by an enormous degree of arbitrariness, where the form of linguistic signs is essentially unrelated to the object or situation being identified. In accordance with Chomsky, Sebeok argues that the main purpose of language is the cognitive function of modelling, not communication in terms of group members’ interaction. We share this view especially in the sense that the arbitrary nature of language and the associated possibility to generate an infinite number of meanings is a fundamental evolutionary novelty (i.e. adaptation; cf. Sebeok 1991: 56).Footnote 8 On the other hand, it is important to realize that the typical use of language is habitual, and for many people its casual use is a symptom of dissolution in the community rather than the invention of new content. Again, this is a clue to the fact that from both ontogenetic and phylogenetic points of view, the group-communicative and modelling function of language cannot be sharply separated.

Sphere III: Culture

Although we have made the choice not to talk about animal languages and preferred to use the more general concept of social communication, our model departs from the part of the zoosemiotic tradition that positively affirms the existence of animal culture. Martinelli (2010: 203) defines culture and delimits its occurrence as follows: “The totality of information acquired and developed by a community and transmitted non-genetically from one generation to another. Phenomena of this kind have been observed in some insects, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, and in most birds and mammals.” Martinelli provides a definition of culture that can be found with minor variations also among ethologists, including those dealing specifically with the existence of culture in primates (cultural primatologists;Footnote 9 for discussion on the definition of culture, see Laland and Galef 2009). Throughout the ethological-based definitions of culture, there is an emphasis on the fact that information must be acquired within an individual community. This represents a difference from Sphere II of our model, which also considers (partly) non-genetic and intergenerational transmission, but the communication and social skills considered are typical of a given species as a whole. In Sphere III, on the contrary, we come to a situation in which animals or humans take the form of individuals who autonomously interpret surrounding features. The occurrence of tradition in a community is not only due to transmission from one individual to another, but also to its inventors: in rare cases, ethologists also know their identities (consider Imo, the female Japanese macaque who started to wash potatoes, Laland and Galef 2009: 3). Although a given set of cultural activities usually helps the group as a whole to survive, it seems that a particular individual has the choice to join or ignore them. Here we see another important difference from Sphere II, where deficits in social communication have significant consequences for the quality of survival or the possibility of finding a sexual partner.

Martinelli’s definition of culture is one that fits well into our model. From a structural point of view, culture will be understood as a special sign system that forms the third modelling system, a superstructure above the community level, growing from and connected to species-specific communication (Sphere II), and the corporeality of that species (Sphere 1). Each cultural activity includes both a corporeal and, in a narrow sense, a communicative component, which are fixed by genes or the social-cognitive umwelt of the species; however, the activity is not fully embedded in them. There is a specific component in the activities at Sphere III that cannot be subsumed under the range of two previous spheres and which, from a phylogenetic point of view, constitutes a newly acquired ability to model one’s surroundings. Culturally conditioned behaviour, then, differs in the degree to which it is tied to the corporeal or communicative component. While the former kind of acts are characterized as primarily physical (e.g. nut-cracking), in the latter acts, special features are established which are then associated with the ensuing activity (e.g. handclasp grooming). From an anthropocentric point of view, it seems that the rapid development of culture (i.e. the number of traditions and the degree of their interdependence) lies in strengthening the latter component.

Human culture

Lestel (2011a) directly criticizes the anthropocentric tradition in semiotics and, in contrast, builds an ontology in which all significant differences between humans and animals are eliminated. Similarly, it can be argued of a significant stream of cognitive ethology (exemplified by de Waal) that although the researchers confirm the difference between humans and apes, they do not give much incentive to think about it: their program is based on the search for similarities. What, then, is the specificity of human culture compared to all other animal cultures? The first response is directly linked to the specificity of human language (Sphere II). Even without adopting a logocentric view, it is undisputed that language plays a crucial role in adopting cultural practices. The uniqueness of language lies in the possibility of fixing meanings by means of arbitrary symbols, which is connected with the ability to create possible worlds, as manifested, for example, in art (here we are in agreement not only with Sebeok but also with the whole tradition of philosophical anthropology, cf. Scheler 1928; Portmann 1990). Recent research in comparative psychology further shows that humans differ from other primates in transferring their skills through active teaching, not merely by actively imitating the activity (Tomasello et al. 2005). However, learning is not limited to the language channel, but can also consist in correction of manual activities and spreading knowledge through shared experience. A strong current of recent comparative and evolutionary psychology employs the term cumulative culture for the case of humans (Tomasello et al. 1993; Boyd and Richerson 1996). We can say that linguistic ability not only allows fixation of individual meanings, but also strengthens the accuracy of imitation of respective activities, which then sediment in a fixed tradition. Human culture appears to be specific in the vast variety of traditions, the depth and degree of their compartmentalization and interdependence (cf. Whiten 2009: 102–4). Generally speaking, human cultural activities have a highly ritualized, organized and historically conditioned form.

Case Study I: The Acquisition and Spread of Nut-cracking Technique among the Chimpanzees in the Täi Forest

All groups of chimpanzees have been found to have a material culture connected with food acquisition (e.g. ant fishing, nut cracking). To illustrate the process of transmission of material culture, we will use the observations of Boesch (2012) about nut-cracking in a group of chimpanzees living in the Taï forest. An important part of Taï chimpanzees’ diet consists of nuts of the Coula tree, which can be cracked only by the use of a wooden stick (hammer) that hits a nut positioned on a stone (anvil) at a proper angle. The technique is transmitted vertically (i.e. across generations) from a mother to her offspring, and its full mastery usually is not acquired before the age of 7.

Although the nut-cracking ability of Taï chimpanzees fully applies to our definition of a cultural trait, the social-cognitive background is common for all chimpanzees (Sphere II). Matsuzawa et al. (2001) call it an education by master-apprenticeship, which is characterized by assistance rather than active teaching (Boesch 2012: 143–144 reports just two instances of direct interventions by mothers in a nut-cracking context). The crucial component of the education is a stimulating learning environment, characterized by an atmosphere of mutuality and tolerance. Apprentices learn by active participation, and when a required technique is not difficult, active teaching by the mother is not necessary. Training bears much more importance, but from an anthropocentric point of view (especially the Western one biased by long and demanding school education), abilities seem to be acquired without too much effort, and both teaching and learning do not have to be facilitated by specific signs, as they are enmeshed into daily activities of the group.

Rather than intervening, mothers need to develop sensitivity for the progress of their apprentices and correctly assess their skill level and react appropriately. Boesch has divided the transmission of nut-cracking ability into three phases: sharing, stimulating, and facilitating. First, mothers allow their offspring to eat around 25% of the kernels they have secured from nuts. Infants imitate the acts of their mothers but are not able to crack the nuts due to their limited physical strength; however, they might assist by collecting them and placing them on the anvil. When they reach the age of 3–4, their mothers stimulate them by leaving nuts suitably positioned on the anvil, so the infant can crack them by using the hammer while the mother leaves to pick other nuts. When infants reach adolescence at the age of 5–8, they have generally acquired the motor-cognitive abilities to crack the nuts all by themselves. Nevertheless, they still have to learn which kinds of wooden branches can be used as hammers. At this stage, mother facilitates their semi-independent activity by leaving them with the hammer and searching for new ones as well as for nuts. The youngster in the Täi forest is provided with hammers and nuts an average of 6 times per 10 min in a nut-cracking session (Boesch 2012: 136–137).

However, not all socially driven behaviour is taught by mothers. In the words of de Waal and Bonnie (2009: 24), imitation always requires some level of identification, which can be explained as “bodily mapping the self onto the other (or the other onto the self)”. Such a basic level of identification seems to provide stronger motivation than extrinsic rewards for any primates: in terms of our model, any act of identification is grounded in corporeity (Sphere I). In opposition to skills of material culture, imitation of social skills is performed horizontally among group members and cannot be reduced to one-to-one interactions. Some symbolic signs are easy to produce (even if they are less ubiquitous in chimpanzee communication than iconic signs; cf. Cerrone 2018); the demanding part is to recognize when and with whom it becomes meaningful to do so. Therefore, an incentive for sign imitation is further reinforced if the behaviour is performed in a socially appropriate context. Models are usually high-ranking individuals, putatively due to their high social and emotional influence on other group members (de Waal and Bonnie 2009 talk about Bonding- and Identification-based Observational Learning). This is a species-specific (if not generally primate) capacity (Sphere II) which sets a social-cognitive background for the transmission of group-specific cultural traits (Sphere III).

To sum up and to apply these pieces of knowledge to the concentric model of cognition:

  • Sphere I – every component of the nut-cracking session is primarily comprehended on the level of intercorporeity. An infant progressively gains an intuitive insight into the meaning of mother’s individual acts. What matters the most is the tacit comprehension (Polanyi 1974: 69–72) of the subtle lines of interactive encounters that further develops within the context of a whole nut-cracking session.

  • Sphere II – the components of the nut-cracking technique are not conveyed by a special set of signs. The education by master-apprenticeship can be characterized by sensitivity to the situation and the arrangement of a suitable context on the ’master’s side (mother consecutively shares, stimulates, and facilitates) and the eagerness to reach the goal by picking up an appropriate individual technique on the side of the apprentice (long-time development and maturation of the motor-cognitive abilities).

  • Sphere III – the nut-cracking technique of Täi chimpanzess is specific to the whole community. Therefore, the spread of the technique and its cohesiveness cannot be accounted for just by individual education by master-apprenticeship, but also by the horizontal imitation of social skills. For example, the ability to find suitable wooden branches that can be used as hammers can be assigned to a collective knowledge of experienced females, the bearers of Täi nut-cracking culture.

Case Study II: Communication and Cognition of Deafblind Persons

Deafblindness is a form of dual sensory impairment which causes a specific problem in communication, mobility and obtaining of information. The degree of such impairment differs case to case, but a deafblind person always requires specific accommodations. Generally, we can distinguish two main categories of deafblindness. The more common of them is the category of “acquired deafblindness,” involving all of those who were born deaf and later lose their sight (for example due to Usher syndrome) or vice versa and those born without any impairment who lose their hearing and sight in later life. The second category of “congenital deafblindness” involves those individuals born with both hearing and visual impairments. For the purposes of our study, let us consider a person who is congenitally deafblind or became so at a pre-lingual stage.

There is a certain level of similarity in various cases of language acquisition by congenitally deafblind individuals. First, the attempt to communicate using sign language is a purposed activity in which the side of the non-deafblind guide’s activity plays the dominant role. This asymmetry applies especially in the extent of enthusiasm with which the guide tries to attract the deafblind partner’s attention (Linell 2017: 69). Second, understanding of signs as the vehicle of communication always takes place in some shared narrative context. There needs to be some connection between the sign itself and a situation to which it relates. The guide cannot “coerce” the sign into the awareness of the deafblind partner by mere memorization. Anne Sullivan, who was a teacher of probably the most famous deafblind person in history, Helen Keller, in this sense failed in her primary effort to teach Keller particular signs by simply joining them to objects. The weakness of this strategy was that during this type of interaction Keller was just enjoying a self-purposeful game of “monkey-like imitation” of signs spelled into her hand by Sullivan. The success and quick advance of Keller’s generative vocabulary started after the episode of drawing water from the well a few weeks later. In this situation Sullivan attracted Keller’s attention with a fluid stream of water and tried to change the speed of signing while spelling w-a-t-e-r on her palm. We are not trying to say that this phase of several weeks of using signs “uncomprehendingly” did not play an irreplaceable role in the whole process of Keller’s language acquisition. However, the crucial moment was connected to a shared activity, physical contact with the element of water and, we dare to assume, the “elemental” mode of signing used in this particular case (see Keller 2012: 11–12).

Another example of this kind is found in Gunnar Vege’s interaction with 24-year-old deafblind Ingerid, captured also on video.Footnote 10 In the shot we see Vege as a guide interacting with Ingerid using a little crab as an object to which both sides of the interaction draw their attention. Vege shows this interesting object to Ingerid, letting her have direct contact with it, and then he tries to summarize the course of the situation with a few signs and gestures. This interaction has a repetitive character. Eventually, Ingerid tries to repeat this message herself (this act is unfortunately not a part of the video), recognizing that every movement of her hands represents some stage of the situation and that she can express it from her own perspective.Footnote 11

Hart (2010) argues that a primitive communication based only on a few instrumentally used signs in the sense of a “here-and-now” mode of communication (e.g. pointing to objects) cannot be sufficient and fails because it lacks a dialogical dimension. This dialogical dimension can be considered an essential element of a functional social context, a prerequisite for learning a fully developed language. One of the specifics of human communication is that it takes place in a “world of shared experiences” (Vege 1999: 192) and that human individuals spontaneously interpret the perspective from which another person talks to them (Marková calls this phenomenon a dialogical epistemology, cf. Marková 2003, 2016). A very similar view on the nature of social cognition has been recently cast as interaction theory (Gallagher 2017).

Attempts at some sign-based proto-language communication are formed by a deafblind individual spontaneously;Footnote 12 however, in order to develop language in the aforementioned sense, the conscious participation of both participants must be aimed at its further development. Hence, the language of a deafblind person develops in a full-fledged form in the same way as the language of persons without dual sensory disability, that is, only within social situations (Hart 2010: 18–19).

To sum up and to apply these observations to the concentric model of communication:

  • Sphere I – this stage is represented by basic bodily interaction recognised by interacting sides as meaningful. This “participatory sense-making” is an equivalent for Merleau-Ponty’s concept of intercorporeity (Gallagher 2017: 52) and consists in the fact that participants are able to interpret the behaviour of the other side as something more than the mere sum of the individual’s movements, bodily postures or gestures.

  • Sphere II – language acquisition is not separable from a social context. Social context on this level means the interactive character of a situation in which a sign (or a word, sentence, message…) is recognized as meaningful and linked to a specific element of the whole situation. Importantly, in the interaction as we describe it here, an act performed by one subject is recognized as some kind of message directed towards the other subject.

  • Sphere III – this level is most clearly shown by the asymmetry revealed in the initial interaction between a deafblind person and her guide. The guide is a representative of the social context and culture in a broader sense, a context which the deafblind individual should attune to. Attunement to this context enables both participants to go beyond the here-and-now mode of communication.


Although the concentric model of cognitive systems was initialized by critical dialectic with Sebeok, it is in fact a completion of his efforts to show parallels in sign exchanges within animal and human communication. In the history of semiotics, Sebeok was one of the first to overcome the ontologically understood boundary between human and animal sign systems. Nevertheless, his concept carries traces of the traditional human/animal dualism when he hierarchically establishes anthroposemiotically understood language and culture as modelling systems superior to the space of zoosemiotic umwelt. Our concentric model abandons the logocentric perspective of Sebeok; however, it avoids the extreme versions of “logodenial,” which deny any specificity to human language. We can keep the notion of language solely to humans and still, when we widen the basis of culture from language to social communication (Sphere II), open a space to relate culture (Sphere III) to the umwelten of social species of animals (see the first case study; cf. Magnus and Kull 2011: 650).

Additionally, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes that the very possibility of language is already anchored in human corporeality (Sphere I), and that language does not stand in sharp opposition to other human communication systems. As was illustrated by the second case study, every linguistic utterance can be understood as a special case of a gesture, since without its physical component it would be difficult to comprehend casual interpersonal interactions. The concentric model, with a modified understanding of the distinction of animal/human, also brings a weakening of the opposition of corporeal/linguistic and seeks to view a human being primarily as a unity of both poles (it is a parallel to the traditional problem of the relationship of soma and psyche). A phenomenological analysis of perception and communication that is not limited to the human world could, we believe, enrich the biosemiotic field by relating the problem of intra- and inter-specific communication to the concept of intercorporeality (Merleau-Ponty 2003; cf. Tønnessen et al. 2018).

Nevertheless, the aim of the concentric model of cognitive systems is not to abolish every conceptual distinction between humans and non-human animals. Although it has been shown in the biosemiotic tradition to what extent the evaluation of animal abilities has been marked in the history of Western thought by anthropocentric prejudice (Martinelli 2010), it is certainly justified to assess some human abilities, markedly those instantiated by language, as unique in evolutionary history. The thesis of the large openness of the human umwelt to the world is in agreement with the phenomenological approach, which has largely informed the tradition of philosophical anthropology.

At the same time, we are in accordance with Brentari (2018) in noting that some philosophical anthropologists have not overcome the curse of portraying animals as deficient in comparison to human beings. Thus, in the work of the key authors of this paradigm, a conceptual hiatus still survives, often leading to the perception of humans as the climax of organic evolution (Scheler 1928). For methodological reasons, we have refrained from such assessments throughout the article, as they are too closely related to value judgments. We have adhered to so-called pluralism, which does not a priori prioritize the umwelt of any species (Jaroš and Maran 2019). If the second case study shows the unique importance of language for human communication and perception of the world, it does not mean that the linguistic description of reality is superior to other modes of inhabiting the world. Human culture has to be understood as a deepening of the structure of knowledge and skills that also exists in other social species with complex cognition and communication, as was shown in the first case study.


  1. 1.

    Martinelli (2010: 27) considers Umwelt theory mostly as “an upgrade to Darwinian Gradualism”. In fact, such an attitude is on the verge with any standard interpretation of Uexküll, as it runs into warning “not to discuss anymore the differences across species in terms of qualitative distinctions” (Martinelli 2010: 44). This profoundly contrasts with the Uexküllian view of diffuse discontinuities as introduced by Brentari (2018).

  2. 2.

    Our contribution should not be understood as adhering to an Uexküllian puritanism. Influenced by an evolutionary-ontogenetic approach, we fully acknowledge the usefulness of the concept of umwelt transition (Tønnessen 2011) and recognize that a one-sided endorsment of umwelt theory can obscure many phenomena of interspecies communication (cf. Lestel 2011b). If biosemiotics is not to dissipate in a Darwinian sea, it is necessary to maintain its identity through links to traditions in evolutionary biology other than Darwinian, as in our multiple references to the work of Portmann in this article.

  3. 3.

    Let us just briefly note that from Abram’s animistic position, expressivity can be perceived in all perceived objects (see Abram 2017: 77–78).

  4. 4.

    For a resolution between signs and signals and its connection with the phenomenality of animal umwelten see Tønnessen et al. (2018: 4).

  5. 5.

    Heidegger in this sense claims that animals are “poor in world”. See Buchanan (2008: 38), cf. Magnus and Kull (2011: 656).

  6. 6.

    See Tønnessen (2014: 291): “In terms of umwelt, i.e. subjective experience, we gradually individuate and become first animal, then human, then eventually persons.”

  7. 7.

    The social brain hypothesis of Dunbar (1998) switches the relation between communication and brain and posits that the rise in brain capacity is a consequence of the rising demands for social communication among humans.

  8. 8.

    It is not possible to mention here all positions taken in the so-called animal language controversy. We do not reject the claim, for example, that humpback whales demonstrate rudimentary elements of syntax in their songs: this, however, in no way proves an ability to endlessly form encoded meanings. Thus even Martinelli (2010: 159) is forced to admit that we do not have any evidence that whales produce anything analogous to the “linking signs” used in human speech.

  9. 9.

    Cf. de Waal (1999: 636): “The ‘culture’ label befits any species, such as the chimpanzee, in which one community can readily be distinguished from another by its unique suite of behavioural characteristics.”

  10. 10.

    Part of this video is available online: - see especially 1:01:40.

  11. 11.

    To help us understand what is happening in this case, Linell uses Trevarthen’s analysis of intersubjectivity. Trevarthen (1979) argues that there are three main levels of intersubjectivity in human personal development. Primary intersubjectivity is the level at which an individual interacts with another. At the level of secondary intersubjectivity, third objects start to play a role in these interactions and an individual learns to analyse the whole situation by dividing it into parts that can be pointed at and named. The third stage of intersubjectivity means relation to non-present subjects and objects, for example through texts. What we see in the video with Ingerid and Gunnar Vege exploring the crab is Ingerid’s transition from the stage of primary intersubjectivity to the stage of secondary intersubjectivity. Ingerid herself is not able to do this step alone – she relies on Vege’s patient attempts to teach her something, using his hands as an extension of her own senses and trying willingly to initiate her into a world conceptualized by other humans throughout history. This new competence to analyse the situation opens her possibilities of self-expression and full-fledged communication (cf. Linell 2017; Gallagher 2017). Thus, tertiary subjectivity in the sense of Trevarthen is a special subgroup of what we call culture: assignment of this level of intersubjectivity is only possible in a social context involving personal guides who have already achieved this stage; see also below.

  12. 12.

    In her autobiography, Helen Keller describes her passion for hunting guinea-fowl eggs in long grass with her friend Martha Washington. She notes: “I could not tell Martha Washington when I wanted to go egg-hunting, but I would double my hands and put them on the ground, which meant something round the grass, and Martha always understood” (Keller 2012: 5–6). This description shows spontaneous use of primitive pantomimic signs in Keller’s attempt to communicate with Martha and also that there is a certain shared experiential history that allows Martha to understand Helen’s primitive message. On the other hand, Keller in this period of time struggled a lot with her own disability to communicate full-fledgedly, which indicates that instrumental use of signs is not sufficient (ibid.: 8–10).


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We wish to thank Andrew G. Christensen for English language editing and translation of some sections, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. The research for this article was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (GAČR) project “Adolf Portmann - a pioneer of the eidetic and semiotic approach in the philosophy of the life sciences” (grant number 19-11571S).

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Jaroš, F., Pudil, M. Cognitive Systems of Human and Non-human Animals: At the Crossroads of Phenomenology, Ethology and Biosemiotics. Biosemiotics 13, 155–177 (2020).

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  • Umwelt
  • Anthropological difference
  • Chimpanzee cultures
  • Deafblind persons
  • M. Merleau-Ponty
  • T. A. Sebeok
  • A. Portmann